Writerly Wednesday: A Literary Link

I’m in the middle of reading Médici’s Daughter, a novel by Sophie Perinot about a 16th-century French Princess, Marguerite de Valois. Margeurite was the daughter of Catherine de Médici, an Italian princess who married Henri II of France. Marguerite was one of many children: if my count is right, there were four sons and three daughters (who survived childhood). Three of her brothers were successively kings of France while she was a young woman. But Marguerite didn’t necessarily get along with all of her fractious family. Her mother was apparently very scheming, and her brother Henri III ended up having her imprisoned for years. Before that, though, Marguerite was witness to one of the worst episodes in French history: the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It happened in the middle of the celebrations for–and possibly because of–her marriage to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant lord. The marriage was loveless and would later be annulled, but Henry, as a Prince of the Blood, became king after all of Marguerite’s brothers died childless.

[Two notes on this: one, a Prince of the Blood is not at all like a prince in the English sense of the word. Princes and princesses of the blood were not children and grandchildren of monarchs but were further removed. Here I discuss titles a bit. Second, Henri became king through his own claim, through his father’s side of the family, because France had Salic law, which meant no one could inherit the throne through the female line.]

Henri IV, as he was, became a hero of French history for being moderate and for bringing some stability during the turbulent wars of religion in France. He remarried after the end of his marriage to Marguerite and had many legitimate children. He was the first of the House of Bourbon. Trace the male line down the centuries, and you come to Louis XVI, which itself links us to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, because it was his wife, Marie-Antoinette, whose reputation was irreparably damaged by the Affair.

But let’s go backwards for just a moment, back to Marguerite de Valois, the daughter of one king and sister of three others. In fact, let’s go back further and talk about her father, Henri II. Henri died due to an infection following a jousting accident. Before dying though, he not only begot a whole crew of legitimate children, he also sired many bastards. (Really, it’s pretty remarkable what he accomplished in so little time on this earth . . . ) One of his mistresses was Nicole de Savigny; their son Henri was dubbed the Comte de Saint-Remy. If that sounds familiar, then congratulations, you’ve been paying attention!

If not, well, here’s Jeanne de Valois de St. Remy . . . the woman who almost single-handedly caused the Affair of the Necklace. (I say “almost” because she conspired with her husband, Nicolas de La Motte.)

That’s right. She was (very) distant cousins with Louis XVI. She even received an annuity from the crown (which she promptly sold for ready cash).She and her husband called themselves comtesse and comte, though they had no actual right to the title. And in spite of being directly descended from a king, the family was penniless yet had delusions of grandeur, which is part of what led Jeanne to defraud a Cardinal, steal a necklace, and blame a queen for the theft.

So Jeanne’s ancestor was half-brother to Marguerite, the main character and protagonist of Médici’s Daughter, which, I might add, I highly recommend. Go read it!

A Cross-post and a New Blog

I have an exciting announcement to make. I wish it were that ever-elusive book deal, but it isn’t quite that exciting.

I have begun a new blog at www.elizabethhuhn.com, and I’m calling it “…And Full as Much Heart” (part of a quote from Jane Eyre). This blog will be focused on my writing, research, and my love of history of all kinds. Fingers-crossed, this will start establishing my presence as my writing career gets off the ground (you heard me–I’m going to have a writing career!).  This blog will remain active, and I will cross-post when appropriate.

For now, I’m going to cross-post a blog about my trip yesterday into central Virginia to the Wilderness Battlefield. I listed “10 Things About the Battle of the Wilderness“. I hope it’s informative and fun.

Vigée Le Brun at the Met


So, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is an exhibit going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlighting the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She was one of the most sought-after and talented portrait painters of her time, and as this previous post explains, one of her paintings played a part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Vigée Le Brun painted Queen Marie-Antoinette multiple times, and her paintings were prominent in the public mind: in addition to the portrait of the

la reine en gaulle

Marie Antoinette en Chemise [or “en gaulle”], 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Queen “en chemise” that caused a minor scandal in 1783, there was the painting of the queen with her children which didn’t entirely succeed in softening the queen’s reputation.


But Vigée Le Brun painted many more people than just Marie-Antoinette. She began painting as a young woman, was sought after among the elite of French society, escaped the French Revolution just before it exploded, moved from capital to capital painting prominent people, and continued to paint late into her life (she died at 86).

The exhibit at The Met includes 80 paintings, some of them of familiar figures to those of us familiar with late-18th-century France: Madame du Barry, the Duchesse de Polginac, Calonne, and Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire. There are also less familiar figures, some of them important men’s mistresses, some of them princes and princesses from across Europe, some of them noted intellectuals. What they all have in common, at least in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, is a vibrancy and movement that you don’t see in many portraits. There are expressions on their faces, and they all look like they’re about to do or say something. They portraits are engaging. The commentary I listened to during my walk-through of the exhibit (I spent


Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

two hours there) suggested that this was because Vigée Le Brun herself was engaging and personable, and she drew out her subjects’ personality. It’s hard to say–one suspects that a large part of it was simply her skill as an artist.

The paintings are also visually stunning. I’ve seen images of the paintings, via the Internet, but they simply don’t do justice to the originals. There is an exquisite delicacy to the way  Vigée Le Brun handled fabrics, especially sheer fabrics like muslin fichus or wraps in ladies’ hair. The white dress worn by the Comtesse de La Châtre in her portrait, for instance, has delicate matte-white dots spread across the white satin fabric below. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail.

In fact, I’d say that “beauty” more or less characterizes all of Vigée Le Brun’s work. Everything she painted has a heightened elegance to it–it’s very much like arranged flowers. This wasn’t an artist interested in capturing people “warts and all”; she was interested in aesthetically beautiful paintings.

And that is more than alright by me. I’m not fond of modern art because it feels so self-indulgent; instead of creating something pleasurable, art is supposed to make us “think” (usually about humanity’s failings). I admit to just wanting a pretty picture. And boy does Vigée Le Brun deliver those!

I should also make a note of the colors: Vigée Le Brun used the most remarkable colors. They’re bright and bold and perfectly chosen. There are blues paired with golds, dramatic reds with black and white, a punch of pastel-colored flowers amid more somber grays and blues, and forest greens paired with royals blue and vibrant whites.


Comtesse de la Châtre. 1789. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did I mention that I adored this exhibition?

It was definitely worth the five-hour drive in the pouring rain, worth braving the streets of New York City, worth the $35 for parking and the $40 in tolls (yeah . . . the I-95 corridor is expensive!). And it was definitely worth the two hours that I spent there, drooling over the beauty of it all.

I was definitely intensely pleased when I got to see Marie Antoinette en Chemise and Marie Antoinette avec une Rose side-by-side. As the audio guide explained, it’s the first time the two have been exhibited side-by-side.

Why was I so excited? Well, again, I refer you to this post, but to give a quick overview of the story behind these paintings: Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait of Marie-Antoinette “en chemise” and presented it in public at a salon in 1783. “En chemise” means that Marie was in a white muslin or “chemise” dress. Now, a chemise was an undergarment that went beneath everything else, stays (“corset”) included. It was scandalous to show the queen in a portrait in what looked like her underclothing. It was too informal, too suggestive. So Vigée Le Brun took down that painting and quickly dashed off another one, with the queen in the same pose but wearing a more appropriate/regal blue satin gown.

In both portraits, you’ll notice, the queen is holding the same thing in her left hand: a rose. Not long after this painting was displayed, in 1785, a young adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois convinced a credulous Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen (she did it to steal a very expensive necklace). To win him over, she hired a prostitute (Nicole d’Oliva) to play the part of the queen (oh dear!), dressed her  in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hand to the Cardinal. Sound familiar? It seems pretty likely that Jeanne got the idea from the portrait of the Queen en chemise. In fact, one of Jeanne’s friends, Jacques Claude Beugnot, remembered that Jeanne had a candy box with a copy of Marie Antoinette en chemise painted on the inside of its lid!

And of course, the reason I started this blog way back when was to tell more of this story. I’d written an entire novel about it, but I wasn’t nearly done. Yes, this blog has shifted focus, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an abiding interest in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and everything related to it. I was even willing to make a harrowing trip into New York City to see this exhibition, just to get a glimpse of the originals of these two paintings. I was rewarded by more beauty than I’d even imagined. I went for the pair of paintings of Marie-Antoinette, but I stayed for the 78 other exquisite pieces of art.

(I would be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a few pictures while inside the exhibit, but I don’t want to share them on principle, and they aren’t very good anyway!)


Writerly Wednesday–The Key to the Enigma

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: writing is weird. Being a writer is weird. As a writer, you spend most your time thinking about people and situations that aren’t real. You hear voices in your head and see visions. And yet, you aren’t schizophrenic or delusional. It’s a good thing. It’s encouraged.

The weirdest thing about a writer’s mind is, maybe, how it just bubbles away beneath the surface. How all the pieces hover there, just waiting for that bright, shining thread to connect them into something coherent. I’ve had the experience before, and I recently had it again with my current WIP. You’rr struggling with a plot knot, or with a character who just isn’t working. You beat your head against the wall. Nothing. And then! Then the idea is there-your subconscious has somehow worked through it and in a moment of calm, the subconscious pops into your conscious with a solution.

I had been struggling with one half of the setting of my WIP. Something just wasn’t working. It wasn’t anything I could name, but everything was coming out loosey-goosey. It didn’t cohere. I tried a hundred different things: I tried adding characters and switching up the particulars of the setting. It still just wasn’t working. One day as I sat on the bus reading some nonfiction research on the topic, it came to me in a blaze of understanding: move the MCs out of the relative quiet and isolation of an English country house and move them right up to the front lines of war. And bam, just like that, everything seemed to click. In a lot of ways, the setting wasn’t that different. But it was just different enough.

I had a similar experience with Channing. For the longest time, it was set in Baltimore. It took me a while, even after I moved to the DC area, to have that “duh” moment. I don’t know why it took so long, and it’s hard to say exactly what it was about Washington City (i.e., DC) that clicked. It just did.

More recently, as I was writing the prequel to Channing, I found myself battling with Emily’s storyline. Most of it worked, but it just didn’t come together properly. Then, I was reading one of the Outlander books, and there was a scene on a dock and, boom! I knew how to rearrange Emily’s story. Just like that, I found the winning formula. Then another revelation as I walked home from the bus stop one day: pride. That was Emily’s defining trait. That and the idea for a scene at the docks came together and, finally, I had a storyline I was happy with.

I think this kind of eureka moment is a sign that I’m getting better at this whole plotting thing (you’ll notice most my duh moments have to do with plot). It’s not my strongest point, and it doesn’t come all that naturally. I have to push and prod my ideas into a compelling plot. And it seems that my brain is learning how to work that out. It’s coming up with solutions. Years ago, on much earlier projects, it was just fumbling around, and those moments of clarity didn’t come. I was still learning how to make it happen. Now my mind, at least the subconscious part of it, has some idea what it’s doing. If only I could get my conscious mind to do the same . . .

Vigée Le Brun at the Met

Every once in a while, there’s something to post regarding the 18th century in France. This happens to be one of those times. After all, the original intent of this blog was to write about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and ancien-regime France.

Just yesterday, I came across an exhibit on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that is so directly related to the Diamond Necklace Affair that it hurts:


The Met is putting on an exhibit of a very large number of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s portraits. She was one of the most prominent portraitists of her age (and her art is absolutely beautiful; her style is just my taste). This is even more remarkable, of course, given that she was a woman. She happened to be one of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s favorite painters. In 1783, she painted the queen in a filmy white muslin dress, a style that was sometimes referred to as “en gaulle” or a “chemise” dress, since it so resembled the chemise, an under-dress. And therein lay the problem: it looked like the queen had been painted in her underclothes! When people saw it hanging in the salon, they were shocked. The resultant scandal did the queen’s already-spotty reputation no favors. Vigée Le Brun quickly painted a replacement with the queen in the same pose and still holding a rose, but this time clad in a dress of blue silk and with an elaborate coiffure.

All of this, of course, was part of the milieu in which Jeanne de La Motte-Valois plotted her jewel theft. Specifically, though, the portrait seems to have been the inspiration for a little bit of play-acting in the gardens of Versailles: Jeanne hired a young prostitute (Nicole Leguay D’Oliva) to play the part of the queen. She dressed Nicole in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hold. Sound familiar? It’s exactly the image from the scandalous portrait. This performance was meant to trick a Cardinal into believing he was back in the queen’s favor, which was part of Jeanne’s plan to get said Cardinal to act as guarantor for a very expensive diamond necklace. The necklace went missing, and a massive scandal ensued, one that Marie-Antoinette never recovered from.

You can click OVER HERE for a blog post all about the painting.

Now, the exhibit is only at the Met until May 15, so there isn’t much time to go see it. I know I’m going to do my best to get up there while I can!

Writerly Wednesday–Bouncing Around

This is going to be an informal kind of blog post, just an update of where I am in my writing. I recently finished editing a manuscript (The Prequel) in response to beta-reader comments. I got back one set a while ago and got the last of the second set of comments about two weeks ago. I was overall pretty pleased with the response. Both readers enjoyed the manuscript, and neither of them had any major problems with it. There was, funnily enough, some disagreement on a few points. One was the title, which one reader liked and the other didn’t. It came from a particular paragraph, which one reader noted she liked and the other noted she didn’t like. So, go figure! In instances like these, I go with my gut, which usually tells me to keep what I have! Both readers agreed that they didn’t like two of the four main characters, but they weren’t written to be likable, and both readers realized that, as well.

I sent the manuscript file off to my agent yesterday, so we’ll see what comments she has. This ms is a prequel to Channing, the story set in Washington DC and the Sea Islands of Georgia in 1854-1858. It’s titled The Cotton Wars and is about the parents of several of the characters in Channing (specifically Harry’s father, Everett’s father and mother, and Hannah’s mother). It takes place in Philadelphia and Georgia starting in 1829. For the record, I do have some very nebulous plans for a sequel, as well, set during the war and Reconstruction.

I finished writing The Cotton Wars ages ago now. I edited the hell out it, especially Emily’s story line, which took forever to get right (the key to Emily, I came to realize, was “pride”). I, however, couldn’t stand not writing new material, so I began a new project. This has been one bear of a project, let me tell you. After banging away at it for months, I finally came to the end of a horrible pile of dreck that weighed in at a whopping 125k words. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t entirely dreck, but it was massively flawed. I allowed it to sit for a while and have finally gotten back to it over the last two months or so, having worked out some of the kinks (funny how the subconscious works away at these problems while you go about your daily life). I’ve been rewriting it and am up to about 65k words. There’s a ton more story to go, but I’m going to hope for the best in coming in under 120k.

You’ll notice that I’m thin on the details. That’s because of the “dreck” thing. This manuscript is a departure for me, as it isn’t exclusively historical and since there’s a framing story. Most the story is historical, but it’s not an era I’ve written in before. All of that is why the project has been such a bear and why I don’t think it’s anywhere near presentable. In fact, this one might end up abandoned in that lovely trunk where sad little novels go to . . . well, maybe not to die, but to molder. We’ll see. This’ll be my last major attempt at a rewrite of it. If I’m not content with where I am–a bit of smoothing-over notwithstanding–then I’ll abandon it. I have at least two other projects to fall back on, projects that are more in my comfort zone (though challenging in other ways).

Time will tell.

The Snake and the Alligator

I have been lucky enough to have the time and resources to take modest trips in recent years. Last year this time, I took a fantastic trip to Savannah to get a look at the location where I’d set my historical novel, Channing. This year, I went to Charleston just because it seemed like a lovely place to go. Both times, I drove down to Butler Island, Georgia, which is the specific spot that inspired Channing. Between those two trips, I had the distinct pleasure to visit Skyline Drive, along the Blue Ridge overlooking the Shenandoah. I even took a hike down to the ruins of a few cabins that belonged to inhabitants of the area before the National Park Service took over the land. I wrote a novella set there during the Civil War–it was inspired, in part, by my ramblings along Skyline Drive.

What did these two trips have in common? Reptiles.

I mean, that and history and writing, of course, but mostly reptiles. This isn’t particularly apropos of anything, but I thought I’d share the stories.

In both cases, I should make clear, I was venturing out of my own. That becomes important to my reactions to said reptiles.

Last summer, I parked my car near mile marker 38 on Skyline Drive and started down the 20150516_122056mountain, towards the ruins of the Nicholson family cabins. It’s something like a mile and a half down (and I mean down; it’s steep). I reached the cabins, looked around a bit, rested by the river, and then started back. At one point, the path crossed a big, flat rock that overhung the river. I was merrily traipsing across this boulder when something made me stop and look to my left. And there it was, three feet away: a big old snake, the same dusty gray as the rock, maybe four or five feet long, stretched out in the dappled sunlight, its mouth open to hiss at me.


My reaction? A very melodramatic gasp, accompanied by a sudden dash for safety.

A hundred or so yards away, panting for breath, I started laughing. That snake hadn’t been interested in attacking me, but it hadn’t been interested in having me around, either. It was a little bit of adventure to spice up my hike, nothing more.


Flowers in the Shenandoah

Now, fast-forward to this March, and I was on Butler Island, in Georgia. To set the scene, it’s a very small, coastal island that’s as much water as land. 1-95 soars across the island on a 50-foot-high bridge and at 75 miles an hour. Below, its mostly swamp and a waterfowl refuge. Route 17 also passes through at ground level, right by the ruins of Butler Plantation’s rice mills, but it’s just a two-lane road passing through; there’s nothing much on Butler Island. Once you get off 17 and head west, towards where 1-95 passes overhead, the land turns very quickly into sandy swamp. Now, I happened to know that the rice fields used to be there and that from the air you can still make out the line of the ditches and dikes (holla, Google Maps). So I took the windy dirt road as far as I could go (to where I-95 passes overhead) and got out to take a walk around the larger, uninhabited western end of the island.

It was sandy and deserted, and two miles away from the road. I started off confidently into the sunny day. I heard things plopping into the water, mostly to my left, where the broad dirt path (wide enough for vehicles, but clearly not used often) gave way to still blue water. I told myself it was frogs, though I knew well enough that there are alligators in that part of the world. The splashes are too small for a gator, I told myself. And honestly, I was probably right. But there I was, now a mile away from my car, which in turn was two miles down an unused dirt road, and all alone on a path through a swamp, feeling


Butler Island,Georgia

more and more uneasy. Then I turned a curve in the road and “plop!”, an alligator does a belly flop into the water about thirty feet ahead of me. I saw his pebbly skin and whip-like tail. He wasn’t a particularly big gator–maybe five feet snout-to-tail. But that was more than big enough for me. I turned on my heel and started walking rapidly back towards my car, making as much noise as possible.


When I got back to the car, my pulse was up, but I couldn’t help laughing. I murmured to myself, “Sorry, Ann!” You see, Ann is a character in Channing who I have running down to the water to look for gators. I didn’t exactly feel like I was betraying her, but I suddenly respected her much more as a character.

And that, my friends, is the story of the alligator and the snake.